Theory of Industrial Conflict that Explains the State of Industrial Conflict in Singapore

An industrial conflict refers to the variety of actions and attitudes, whether individual or collective, covert or overt, that depicts antagonism and different orientations between the industrial management and proprietors on one side, and the workers and their unions on the other. Often, the conflicts may involve other outside parties such as mediators, the government, the public, media and organizations such as religious groups who in one way or another could be affected by the conflict. The actions and attitudes can be collective and organized where the employees combine in the place of work to participate in some kind of industrial action such as strikes, bans on overtime, protests and lockouts (Anis & Islam 146). Conversely, they can be individual and unorganized occurring spontaneous or mediated by individual actions such as sabotage, absenteeism from work, inefficiency, sit-ins, labour turnover, insubordination and decreased productivity (Anis & Islam 146). Some these actions and behaviours some are easily perceived (overt) such as strikes while others are hidden (covert) such as labour turnovers and absenteeism. Additionally, the actions are either proactive or defensive. Proactive actions are those that aim to improve certain facets of the employments such as remuneration or working hours while defensive actions are those in opposition to various changes or polices adopted by the management that adjust the terms of employment (Sarosh &Erickson 3).

In Singapore, the theory of industrial conflict that best explains the state of conflict is the pluralist approach. This approach acknowledges that some conflicts are inevitable, and gives a broader understanding of industrial conflicts, in countries like Singapore, where collective, organized and overt forms of industrial conflicts such as strikes, protests and demonstrations are not a common occurrence. This paper will review the pluralist theory of industrial conflict in relation to the state of industrial conflict in Singapore, presenting the advantages and disadvantages of the approach embodied in the theory.

Pluralist theory revolves around the fact that, in industrial relations, conflict is an integral and innate aspect of the employment relationships and not a consequence of repugnant behaviour (Sarosh &Erickson 4). The theory holds that there could be recognizable areas of mutual interest amongst the employers and workers where conflicts hardly occur. Nevertheless, it is not surprising for conflicts to occur between the owners and management of industries and their employees. Unlike, unitarist theory which centres largely on either the mind-set of the workers, or the tactics and policies of the management within the industries as the root of conflicts, pluralist approach is further mindful of the part played by power within the industrial relationships (Sarosh &Erickson 4). Pluralist approach gives more focus to structural and circumstantial justifications of conflict and lays emphasis on the part contributed by industrial conflicts in rule making. On one side, conflicts could be a component of the rule-making process where workers, their unions or employers use various approaches such as strikes and lockouts to force collective bargains. Conversely, conflicts could be the product of rule-making process, depicting the dissatisfaction with the outcome of the process hence highlighting the nature of existing industrial relations. Increased industrial conflicts, employee turnover and absenteeism are indicators of a strain in the industrial relations necessitating evaluation of potential causes of such conflict. Pluralist theory emphasis is on analysing the origins of the conflict and evolving schemes that resolve the problem instead of blaming one party or denying the existence of the problem altogether (Anis & Islam 157). Through such an approach, parties to the conflict get to identify the source of the conflict in a timely manner avoiding delays that arise from blaming one another for the conflict.

After Singapore attained self-rule, various labour policies emerged. In the early phase, the labour movements were very active characterized by prevalence of strong unions that lobbied aggressively for employee issues. At a latter phase, in pursuit of export-oriented industrialization (EOI) strategy, the government pushed for policies that diminished the power of collective bargaining and eliminated oppositional unions. For instance, legislations were passed through the trade union law amendments to eradicate the unions with no regular activities such as the yellow unions (Anis & Islam 159). Such law led to the cancellation of numerous union registrations while the government terminated some of the existing unions. For instance, resulting from such a policy, the total number of unions declined from 218 to 127 within a year (Anis & Islam 160). This approach however led to multiple industrial actions and conflicts such as strikes, mass protests and demonstrations. During this early phase, there were persistent and widespread calls for cooperation between the three parties to the conflict – labour, employers and government (Anis & Islam 161). However, the unionists, angered by the change in state of affairs that resulted in their reduced power and armed with slogans, scorned upon such calls for cooperation (Anis & Islam 161). Such unwavering positions of the labour unions dissuaded employers from engaging in conflict-resolution approaches.

An advantage of the pluralist theory is that it views industrial conflicts as an inherent part of industrial organizations and organizations have to learn to resolve the conflicts effectively and efficiently to function well. According to the pluralist theory, conflicts occur because each member of the organization has diverse and frequently contrasting goals (Sarosh &Erickson 4). For instance, in Singapore, the trade unionists found no reason to foster economic development or growth of enterprises, feeling they had nothing to benefit from such approaches. They regarded approaches by the government to improve economic development as further exploitation of employees (Sarosh &Erickson 19). On the other hand, employers were unwilling to increase wages and enhance working conditions for their employees (Sarosh &Erickson 19). Such diverse positions meant that the parties to the conflict needed to find an aspect of mutual interest that would form the basis of conflict resolution. Go to part 2 here.

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